Todd Solondz, the director of cringe-comedies like Happiness and Storytelling, observes the world without corrective lenses. Movies can project idealized images, but Solondz sees things as they are. His films are about the messy pieces in life and how they never seem to fit together. His latest, Wiener-Dog, is no sequel to Lassie, let me tell you. The characters drift like the eponymous dachshund, from one stage of life to the next, without much say of how things go or where they end up.
There are four stories as a dog is passed between owners, each one following an older character. A young boy, who is kept on a tight leash by his miserable, bourgeois parents, is trapped inside his cold, urban home without any outside friends. Dawn Wiener, who was abused by her peers in junior high — depicted in Solondz 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse — runs into bully Brandon, and they go together on a trip to meet his brother. The third story follows a screenwriting professor who is uninterested in life and his students, and in the final chapter an elderly woman is visited by her granddaughter who needs money.
The form is made up of long, static, and stilted shots. When the camera moves, it’s with a snail-paced pan or dolly. The characters are situated awkwardly in the frame, imprisoned within its “matter of fact-ness.” An ensemble of deadpan performances by Greta Gerwig, Danny Devito, Kieran Culkin, and Julie Delpy are trapped in a deadpan world. There are only a few grace notes and tender flourishes: a hug between two estranged brothers or a grandmother’s selfless gift.
Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which followed the parallel lives of a girl and her donkey as they age, is a clear influence. But while Bresson made a saintly prayer, Wiener-Dog is a mutter into the void. Solondz’s film is restricted by his worldview — meaningless about meaninglessness. Within his philosophy, there is thankfully room for humanism and vivid moments of joy and pain. But seen through the eyes of a nihilist, life is a grand folly, neither happy nor sad. Wiener-Dog ends in the only way it could have: with a punchline, not an elegy.